Robert B. Livingston
November 16, 2013
Historical vantage from 1980s has implications for today
I am glad to become acquainted with James MacGregor Burns via this archived broadcast, and am eager to listen to his ideas on other episodes where he was a guest on the Open Mind.
In this program, professor Burns and his host, professor Heffner, assess the state of America when Ronald Reagan is president, and the Moral Majority is making its "moralistic" as opposed to "moral" agenda heard (Burns identifies the difference).
Burns is fascinated by leadership and identifies three types, or cadres. The first are the people in power. The second are those who have broad influence, as opinion makers in the media. The third are least known, perhaps citizen gadflies who ask questions or make their desires known at opportune times. Together, all three types have the ability to implement or hinder change, positive or negative.
Burns describes how great conflict and crisis are the usual catalysts for bringing leadership to the fore: as in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Twentieth Century Great Depression. For him, most people suffer in bad times by hunkering down in silence, although education and civic engagement play a huge part among some. Burns and Heffner wonder where are the giants of leadership today compared to Revolutionary days? A chief problem which Burns identifies is that a quest for "bi-partisanship" and cooperation limits visionary, strong leadership. (He notes how the two US parties have become more alike, how Reagan's popularity is in large part due to having a personal vision, and how the Democratic Party is failing for lack of not providing a clear left direction.)
Although neither guest or host could have predicted US economic decline post-NAFTA, the theft of the 2000 presidential election, the illegal wars post September 11, 2001, or the invasive security state under a Rorschach president who promised a weary population "Hope and Change," Burns clarifies a growing crisis of great leadership among all segments of American society.
Has America yet reached a time for change? Is it still possible within the paradigm of the traditional American political system? What would Burns have to say about President Obama who incessantly complains his hands are tied despite always reaching across the aisle for compromise? Should the people celebrate bi-partisan accord on a host of token identity issues while meanwhile they are mired in debt, jobless, and lacking affordable healthcare? Even as financial swindlers and warmongers are steeply rewarded in all manners?
This is a good program for building an historical perspective which may have applications for finding solutions for problems today. For myself, Burns' description of leadership definitively answers why Obama is such a poor leader (if he is indeed a leader at all).
Sadly, after viewing this program, I am slightly more worried that some serious demagogues from the Right may soon appear on America's horizon.